James Lovelock

As you enter Professor James Lovelock’s whitewashed cottage on the border of Devon and Cornwall, you see a contraption on a stand, a small box with a few curved wires. It’s an invention of his, one that should be in a museum. He used it to alert the world — via Margaret Thatcher —  to the dangers of CFCs, specifically the damage they were doing to the ozone. In the next room there is a photograph of him with the Queen, on the day she made him a Companion of Honour (honour is the word, there are only ever 65 people entitled to use the letters CH after their name). And beyond this is his study, sprawling with wires and cables. He writes his elegant prose in here, a series of bestselling books. But this is also where he likes to keep his inventor’s hand in, working on projects for the Ministry of Defence, the sort of gadgets Q makes for Bond. Back in 1954, he invented the microwave oven but, not being that interested in money, left it to others to realise its commercial value. He had another discovery to preoccupy his agile mind — a theory so radical and lyrical it would one day lead to his name being mentioned in the same breath as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, one of our greatest, and most controversial, living scientists.  We shall come to that.

There is also a model of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket in here, the one that Lovelock will be flying to space in later this year, shortly after his ninetieth birthday — the ‘ultimate upgrade’ he calls it. The trip will be a sort of present from Branson — who credits Lovelock with inspiring him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming. Lovelock is not worried about the dangers. ‘If I die, I die,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Doesn’t bother me. I’ve had a long life and it would be a good way for a scientist to go.’

His training has involved going in a G-force simulator. Three Gs so far, rather than the full six he will experience with vertical take off. His doctors have advised against it, not least because he once had a heart bypass. ‘The centrifuge beats any fairground ride,’ he says. ‘Great fun.’

I’m not sure his wife Sandy, an American 30 years his junior, is quite so nonchalant about his trip into space. She is protective of him, making sure he wraps up warm when we go outside, for example. They met at a science conference when he was 69, (shortly before his first wife, and the mother of his four children, died after a long illness). ‘The age difference did not occur to us,’ she says, speaking with a warm, St Louis accent. ‘When you are in love you are in love.’

Certainly, Lovelock does not look his age. He has a full head of silver hair, a glint in his eye and a strong and rolling voice, albeit one with a slight lisp. When we sit down for lunch, homemade vegetable soup, he says: ‘This soup is the secret to my longevity. I have it almost every day.’ If he looks fit, it as nothing to his mental agility. In conversation, he never hesitates or has to search for a word.

‘I imagine Sir Richard’s medical and legal advisors are assailing him,’ he says, ‘warning him of the adverse publicity if I drop dead in the spacecraft. But I’ll be fine. They keep making me take all sorts of tests to see if I am still alive. There was a funny one I had to do in St Louis a few months ago. They injected me with three millicuries of thallium-201, which is a gamma-emitting isotope, then got me to ride a bicycle and did a scan of my heart to see if it was working properly. It was fun watching the scan on the screen to see if the ventricles were contracting properly, expelling all the blood they should. The medical team were all cheering because it was working so well. What they would expect for someone much younger than me. So they have no excuse not to let me go up on medical grounds.’

He grins. ‘To be honest I am so carried away with the thought of doing this trip, I don’t care about the consequences. When I was young I was daft enough to do rock climbing in plimsolls, without ropes. I had some scares but I’m glad I did it. I’ll be the same before this flight. I’ll be scared but I’ll be glad I did it. It will be important, this chance to see the earth before the ice caps vanish. It will be an important moment for me personally.’

This is something of an understatement. Lovelock has spent a lifetime contemplating our gently spinning, green and blue planet — its beauty, its poise, its apparent luminosity in the blackness of space. Even before the first colour photographs of it were taken —  40 years ago this summer, when Neil Armstrong took his one small step for a man — he was able to ‘see’ it with his mind’s eye, and understand it, in all its spherical glory.

In 1968, his neighbour, the novelist William Golding, helped him with come up with a poetic name for his theory that the earth and all the living plants and creatures upon it are inextricably bound together, interacting in complex ways to ensure that the environment can sustain life. While walking with Lovelock to the village pub one day, Golding suggested calling it ‘Gaia’, after the Greek goddess of Earth.

‘Bit of luck,’ the professor says. ‘Living next to door to a man like that. Who would be interested in the theory if I had stuck with its original name, Earth System Science?’

According to Gaia theory, ours is a living planet, the only one we know of in the universe, and the human beings upon it are transitory and irrelevant to its survival — though not to their own survival, if they go on over-heating the planet with the Co2 emissions they cause. Lovelock’s belief in Gaia was reinforced by research showing that, even though the energy reaching the Earth from the Sun had increased during a certain period, the temperature and chemical makeup of the atmosphere remained unchanged. The only explanation, he decided, was that the Earth was a self-regulating system that had found a way to preserve its equilibrium. The organisms on Earth had kept their environment stable. This seemed to be Gaia in action.

The hippies loved it. The idea of Gaia caught the imagination of academics everywhere, too. It prompted John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, to describe Lovelock as ‘the most important and original scientific thinker in the world today.’ What appealed, of course, was its metaphorical potency, Gaia seemed to be giving us a subtle lesson in the physiology of a planet. Was he aware of the poetic power of his metaphor right from the start? ‘No, my first feelings about it were “Oh yes, that’s a nice word.” I have a bit of poet in me, I suppose, and I like words with a ring to them and an interesting provenance. But I was shocked by the way the American scientific community went berserk. They thought it was dreadful usage. Still do.’

Because it is too whimsical? ‘They call it trying to mix myth with science. It was all nonsense, they said, because it was too much of a threat to their comfortable way of living. You see science has sold its soul to the politicians. It has got so bad nowadays, the wooliness of political argument about Green issues. And the Greens themselves have becomes so fanatical. I feel the Green attacks on the airlines particularly half baked; all this stuff about carbon footprints is hogwash. Greens can be such Nazis.’

Um, isn’t that rather an unfair comparison? ‘Not really. Compared with the amount of fuel we use just keeping ourselves warm, the amount you use per year flying is trivial.’

But surely it’s not just the fuel used, it’s what jumbo jets do to the atmosphere. ‘They hardly do anything to the atmosphere. I suppose the jet contrails might be harmful but it depends where they are produced. In some areas it will produce warming, in others cooling. There is a lot of argument still among geophysicists about what effect it has. The way I look at it, if you add together the CO2 produced by the nearly seven billion people in the world, and their livestock, it is ten times the amount of CO2 produced by all the airline travel in the sky. So if you want to improve your carbon footprint, hold your breath. The number of people is the problem, and it’s all happened so fast. When I was born the world population was two billion. In my lifetime that figure has more than trebled.’

He has a solution to this which is chracteristically unexpected. ‘If women were more empowered around the world there would be fewer children. The chief increase in population occurs in the Third World because there the women have so little power. If there were more women politicians around the world there would be a natural curb to population growth.’

I ask if he ever catches himself straying into misanthropy when he contemplates these global issues. ‘I suppose so. I think there is a lot of misanthropy in all of us. Think of that song “if you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy.” I’m a little agoraphobic and can’t think of anything worse than a crowd. I’m a non-joiner.’

Is that a mark of eccentricity? ‘You would know, not me.’

Eccentric means outside the circle. There is something in his character to which that applies, the way he is always thinking outside conventional wisdom. ‘Possibly, but it is not a deliberate act of thought. It comes naturally. I tend to see in more dimensions than most people, I suppose. I used to get cross with your profession because they always referred to me as a maverick. A maverick really is an outsider. The village idiot. As far as science goes I am far from being a maverick. I belong to all these important societies, and didn’t join them, they elected me.’

Is he a contrarian then? ‘Not for the fun of it.’

According to Dr David Weeks, a clinical neurophysiologist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital, an eccentric tends to be intelligent, curious, outspoken, unmotivated by greed, dogged and healthy. Eccentrics don’t know they are eccentric, moreover. They think their abnormal behaviour is perfectly normal. Because they are not concerned about conforming, they are naturally much less prone to stress. And because of their humour and happiness, they tend to live longer. This definition seems to apply to the inscrutable Lovelock in spades. He is entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd. Though he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and has worked for NASA, Shell, MI5 and various universities, he has always preferred to plough his own lonely furrow, funding his research with his 40 or so patents and the various prizes he wins. Eccentrics tend to be only children, as Lovelock was. Brought up by a grandmother, he saw the world as ‘very cosy and comfortable’.

At school he made his own working short-wave radio receiver from scraps of wire, jam jars and pencils. Later he would make his own explosives with which to blow up obstructions on local footpaths. He grew up with Quaker principles, and became a conscientious objector in the Second World War. I suspect he enjoys being a member of the awkward squad.

In name and in spirit, Gaia seemed to represent the opposite of rigid scientific enquiry. It advocates a ‘holistic’ view of the Earth, rather than the traditionally ‘reductionist’ breaking down of systems to their constituent components. No wonder the Prince of Wales is a fan. Last summer he invited Lovelock to ‘teach the teachers’ at his Education Summer School at Cambridge University. But that doesn’t stop Lovelock voicing his approval of GM food, one of the Prince’s bête noirs. The Greens don’t know quite what to make of him either. In some ways, as the father of Gaia, he is an environmental guru, a folk hero. In others he is the devil. His biggest thought crime, as far as the Green movement is concerned, is his enthusiasm for nuclear energy. He believes it is now our only hope in a  fight against global warming that may already be lost. All other options — biofuels, wind energy, solar heating and so on are a waste of time and money.

‘I’m not a religious person,’ he tells me, ‘but if I were I would say, look, nuclear energy is the energy of the universe. God has given it to us and what do you fools do with it? You use it as weapon. It could have resolved all your problems.’ He believes that when London is flooded around the middle of the next century and 10m people have to be relocated, that generation will be cursing us for burning fossil fuels. ‘They’ll be wondering why we were so stupid not to accept the beneficence of nuclear power.’ The real dangers to humanity and the ecosystems of the earth from nuclear power are almost negligible, he reckons. As for Chernobyl, ‘thirty-odd brave firemen died who needn’t have died but its general effect on the world population is almost negligible. All around Chernobyl, where people are not allowed to go because the ground is too radioactive, the wildlife thrives. It doesn’t care about radiation.’

But what shall we do with nuclear waste? ‘Stick it in some precious wilderness. If you wanted to preserve the biodiversity of a rainforest, bury nuclear waste in it to keep the developers out. The lifespan of the wild things might be shortened a bit, but the animals wouldn’t know, or care. Natural selection would take care of the mutations. Life would go on.’

Blimey. He also believes that if we must have cars, then they should be electric vehicles charged by nuclear power stations. ‘They’d have much less range than the present models and so they’d be much less nuisance.’

Though he is in no doubts that man-made global warming is a reality, possibly an irreversible one, he doesn’t agree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consensus that the increase in temperatures will be smooth, slow and continuous. He thinks they will be more like a mountain, a concatenation of slopes, valleys, flat meadows, rock steps and precipices. We are in a brief chasm at the moment, for example, caused by the melting ice caps lowering the temperature of the Atlantic and temporarily stopping the Gulf Stream. ‘The problems is that climatologists base their projections on models, not observations and measurements. Actually the sea level is rising twice as fast as they estimate. This is shocking. Even the economists are doing better than that. And it is mad of politicians to try and make predictions about the climate 60 years from now. The models suggest that if you cut back CO2 by 80%, all will be well. But they cannot possibly know, based on modelling.’

In his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, he writes: ‘We do not seem to have the slightest understanding of the seriousness of our plight. Instead, before our thoughts were diverted by the global financial collapse, we seemed lost in an endless round of celebration and congratulation.’ For all this, his new book is less pessimistic than his last, The Revenge of Gaia, which rather shocked the world with its bleak, nothing-can-be-done, outlook. ‘I’m less pessimistic and more,’ he says. ‘We’re not clever enough to get out of this mess at all. But we are tough animals. We are going to survive because we, our generation, don’t represent the end point. We will go on evolving and hopefully, further down the line, people will evolve who are clever enough to tackle this thing.’

Does he feel frustrated by global warming deniers? ‘I’m not Dr Strangelovelock gloating at what is going to come, but it is going to come, I fear. What is the point of being cheerless though? My message is, if we are all doomed, enjoy it while you can. My memory of the War is that war is more exciting than peacetime. I suppose we are in the Phoney War now and the equivalent of building shelters in the garden for the coming blitz is putting up wind turbines. They won’t do much good. Other that the psychological benefit of feeling you are doing something.’

I can see that windfarms that blot the landscape are a mixed blessing, but what about at sea? ‘I have no objection to them putting them out at sea, if that is what Brown wants to do to create jobs, and keep the Germans happy, and improve his changes of getting a job at the EU when he retires. Good luck to him. But they are utterly pointless as a source of energy and not in the least Green because they all have to be backed up with coal-fired power stations. Blair was disgraceful on nuclear. Major was just as bad because he rescinded Thatcher’s instructions to renew the older nuclear power stations. She was pro nuclear because she was a scientist.’

Like Thatcher, Lovelock was a chemistry graduate. As a young man he was tempted by communism, but he later became a huge fan of the Iron Lady, especially when she embraced his theory about Ozone depletion (she was the one who fought for the global ban on CFCs in aerosols and fridges). ‘Margaret Thatcher and I got on like a house on fire. She really understood CFCs. We were so close, it was quite funny. But whenever I tried to talk about other issues such as the health service which I thought she was damaging she would say, “No, I only want to talk about the environment with you.” She could be very tough minded.’

His clash with Richard Dawkins, the author of the Selfish Gene, was not quite so amicable. Though you could argue that the Gaia Theory brings Darwinism home, replacing the shocking bleakness of its revelation of our animal ancestry with a living, breathing and ultimately consoling sense of our place in nature, Professor Dawkins hated the name. For him it reeked of unscientific New Ageism. He hated the concept too, arguing that, actually, our Goldilocks planet — not too hot, not too cold — manages life, not the other way around. A living Earth, moreover, would never have evolved by natural selection. ‘Well he’s been proved wrong now,’ Lovelock says. ‘He brought up the point that there can be no natural selection of things larger than the phenotype, but the latest theory is that, in the case of social insects, it is the nest that evolves, not the bees. Group selection is coming back.’ He grins again. ‘The neo-Darwinists were far too dogmatic. It was almost like Newton storming out and saying there is no such thing as relativity. That wouldn’t have been a very scientific way to behave. I suppose Dawkins couldn’t help it. He is a dogmatist. He can’t be an agnostic, he has to be an atheist. It’s his nature. But he was useful to me because he made me realise it wasn’t life that did the regulating, it was the whole system.’

In his ninetieth year he does not hold out much hope of being around long enough to see how the Gaia story continues — see if we really are doomed by global warming — but this, he says, does not frustrate him. ‘That would mean worrying about my own end point and I’m not worried about that. If you can stay healthy you can reach 90. So 100 is my next step. A long way away. No need to worry about that.’

He seems to have absolute certainty about Gaia Theory. Never a doubt. ‘Oh no, that’s the worst thing you can have. No scientist should have certainty about anything. I’m confident. There is a difference.’